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Who saved Alexander Alekhine?

A part of Sergei Tkachenko's extensive article about the master Yakov Vilner.

"...In Odessa, a very strong tournament should have taken place, with Alekhine, Evenson, Bogoljubov, Dus-Chotimirsky, Bohatirchuk and other renowned players.

Alas, the quickly-changing political situation interfered with the chess players' plans. The rule of hetman Skoropadsky, the main sponsor of the tournament, had ended, and the new rulers didn't share his enthusiasm towards the ancient game. And, well, the subsequent kaleidoscopic change of Odessa's rulers made any kinds of chess tournaments impossible. Alekhine, who'd already come to Odessa, had to earn his living with simultaneous displays. And when he didn't play simuls, he played in the chess room of Robin's cafe...

Robin's chess cafe. It's interesting that its owner wanted to bequeath the restaurant to the Odessa chess society. But his heirs shot this idea down.
He continued playing in the cafe even after the Bolsheviks came to Odessa at 6th April 1919. One Odessa historian told me that Alekhine was arrested by the Cheka officers and taken to the jail at the Ekaterininskaya square straight from the cafe: one of the local players, suffering a heavy defeat against Alekhine, denunciated him. This story was told to him by one of the Cheka ex-officers who later became an important official in the Soviet militia. Alas, I couldn't find any evidence for this tale - even the name of the player who wrote the denunciation. Almost all documents concerning the Bolsheviks' second coming to Odessa were burned in August 1919 by the Cheka officers fleeing from Denikin's forces. The Bolshevik comrades destroyed the documents to cover up killings and reprisals. The miraculously saved remains were taken to Romania after Nazis took Odessa in 1941, and the ultimate fate of those documents is still unknown.
Alekhine's stay in the Cheka basements couldn't lead to any good. He was a nobleman, son of the State Duma member and the heir of the Trekhgornaya Manufacture. The very citation of this list caused much hatred among the members of the new power... I strongly recommend you to read Ivan Bunin's diary Cursed Days that tells about the April-August 1919 period in Odessa. The words of someone who'd seen everything with his own eyes are precious! Bunin's diary can be supplemented with the book Red Terror in Russia in 1918-23 by a noted historian S.P. Melgunov. Citing the facts of an international committee, Melgunov tells of mass executions in Odessa in those days. The executors themselves didn't even try to hide their "exploits". The former superintendent of the Ekaterininskaya Square jail N.L. Mer remembered that almost all Cheka officers on night shifts took part in shootings. They would start up a lorry truck's engine, strip the sentenced people naked, bring groups of 10-12 people to the garage, where the commandant squad (mostly Chinese) shot them to the death. Up to 50 people were killed nightly, freeing up the space for new prisoners. Then the bodies were loaded onto the truck, brought to the 2nd Christian cemetary and thrown into a specially prepared pit.
How Alekhine managed to avoid being shot by Cheka? There was a version that the future chess king was saved by the head of Revolutionary Military Council, Lev Trotsky himself, who allegedly visited Alekhine in his cell, played several games with him, lost them all... and let the prisoner go in peace after that! A very touching story, but the facts are a very stubborn thing. It's documentally proved that Trotsky never visited Odessa in 1919, and so he couldn't free Alekhine... Another thing is funny in this story with Trotsky! In the September 1937 issue of the English Chess magazine, the article dedicated to Alekhine's victory over Euwe in the return match again cites this version of a miraculous salvation! The article was published while Alekhine was still alive and well, but Alekhine didn't refute this misinformation. Why, you might ask? It's a theme for another article, and I'll surely return to it in the future, but I'll say shortly: it wasn't exactly advantageous for Alekhine to make all the details public and tell the truth about his life in Odessa after leaving jail...
There is another version that says that Alekhine was helped to avoid execution by Dmitry Zakharovich Manuilsky, a renowned official of the Bolshevik party who worked at Ukraine since April 1918. This variant was considered the most realistic by Yuri Nikolaevich Shaburov, the author of many publications about Alekhine. In his book Alexander Alekhine - The Undefeated Champion he writes, "It was no accident that Alekhine was freed. Aside from his obvious innocence, it's proved by the fact that he came to Odessa with consent of D.Z. Manuilsky, a renowned state and party official. At that time, Manuilsky worked in Kiev and was a member of All-Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee, the People's Comissair of agriculture. The Odessa Cheka members double-checked the suspect's testimony and were convinced that his reputation was beyond doubt. So probably that's why right after leaving jail, in April 1919, Alekhine was immediately given a post in the Odessa Government Executive Committee." Shaburov's version is very good, but... Manuilsky didn't work at Kiev then!! He was given all those post only in January 1920, when Alekhine already moved to Moscow. And while Alekhine resided in the jail's basement, Manuilsky was... also limited in his freedom!

Dmitry Manuilsky is laughing. About what?

In January 1919, Manuilsky, with Inessa Armand and Yakov Davydov, went to Paris with the Russian Red Cross mission, to try and get the soldiers and officers of the Russian Expedition Corps back to the country. But the French government, understanding the ulterior motives of the Bolshevik mission, stalled the talks. Moreover, the Bolshevik delegation was soon arrested and interned in the small French town Dunkirk.
By official information, the members of the Red Cross mission were freed (or rather exchanged!) in June 1919. Only after those misadventures Manuilsky was sent to work in Ukraine, and only in January 1920 he became a member of the Ukrainian Revolutionary Committee. This information isn't secret; it's strange why Shaburov didn't check the dates to confirm Manuilsky's whereabouts in the April-May 1919.

Manuilsky's grave in Kiev

There's also a third version of Alekhine's salvation, in G. Muller and A. Pavelchak's book Alekhine, the Chess Genius. Shaburov mocked this version in his book, saying, "In essense, among the five judges who had to sign Alekhine's death sentence, there was one who refused to sign it out of respect towards the famous chess player, and that's why he was freed. Could such thing happen?" Amazingly, this version is closest to the truth! Yes, such thing could happen!! (Studying the archive documents and memories of the people who took part in those events, I came across even more implausible events and facts that couldn't be explained logically.)
Analyzing the events of those April days and juxtaposing them with witnesses' accounts, the Odessa historians came to conclusion that Alekhine was saved by Yakov Vilner who then worked as a clerk in the "legal branch" of the Revolutionary Tribunal. He was given an execution list with Alekhine's name to sign. Understanding that there's very little time before the execution, Vilner called Christian Rakovsky, the head of Ukrainian Council of the People's Comissairs, and... what transpired then, was related to us by the future International Master Fedor Bohatirchuk:
"Luckily, Rakovsky knew of Alekhine's chess genius and immediately called the Odessa Cheka by direct line. The only thing we know for sure is that Alekhine was freed the same night..." Vilner himself told Bohatirchuk how Alekhine's salvation came about when they met.
By the former Odessa Cheka officers' memories, Rakovsky's order came almost immediately before the execution.
Christian Rakovsky and Lev Trotsky, 1924
In this undoubtedly miraculous salvation of Alekhine, one fact disturbed me: Vilner's direct call to the influential ruler of Ukraine. Was this call just an off-chance? But the archive research (luckily, not all documents of that time were burned or stolen!) dispelled my doubts. Rakovsky indeed knew the Odessa situation well and very actively participated in organizing the work of local Cheka and creating the tribunal. In the unclassified and miraculously surviving documents of Odessa Government Committee I saw Rakovsky's facsimile. By his order (to legitimize the atrocities, it seems), the legal branch of the tribunal published the execution lists in the News of the Odessa Council of Workers' Deputies newspaper. From this very newspaper I learned about Rakovsky's involvement with the Odessa Revolutionary Tribunal. At the end of April 1919, Rakovsky came to Odessa from Kiev in a "private railway car" and brought the "justice commissariate decrees" necessary for the Odessa tribunal's work. Curiously, Rakovsky didn't move to any hotels in Odessa, preferring to stay in that "private car" at the Odessa railway station where he received various delegations and messengers... Perhaps Vilner met Rakovsky during that time, receiving some instructions or directions.
Christian Rakovsky's facsimile on the Odessa Government Committee's documents.
Shaburov, seemingly understanding the inaccuracy of his version of Manuilsky freeing Alekhine, came to Odessa after writing The Undefeated Champion to get access to the Ukrainian Security Services Odessa archives, which "inherited" the old KGB files after USSR dissolved. Alas, the USS couldn't find anything pertaining to those events in their archives (at least, that was the official reason of their refusal). But Yuri Nikolaevich's visit wasn't all in vain! One day, he visited Evgenia Vasilievna Vladimirova - the daughter of one of the founders of Odessa Chess Society, Vasily Modestovich Vladimirov. (There's a photo in her archive of a chess game her father and Nikolai Loran played against Alekhine. The photo was made on 16th April 1916, in the Commercial Assembly building which hosted the chess club at the time.) From her father's words, Evgenia Vasilievna told the Moscow guest about the events of those wild years; about the constant reshuffle of rulers; about the city's chess life; about how her father couldn't accept the "new power" for a long time - and, most importantly, that "the chess player Vilner who worked in the Revolutionary Tribunal at the time" had a major part in saving Alekhine for the chess world. Shaburov copied the photo, with her permission.
First row, left to right: V.M. Vladimirov, N. Loran, Heifitz (publisher of Odessa News newspaper), unknown, A. Alekhine. Second row, right to left: A.A. Khudarsky, the renowned Odessa reporter; F. Shpanir, the organizer of Alekhine's Odessa tour; Boris Verlinsky; three unknown men.

Comments


  • 11 months ago

    batgirl

    I found Café Robinat sometimes refered to as the "бильярдной кафе Робина," so I imagine it was a popular for its billiards ans for its chess.  Apparently, the Robinat was established by a Frenchman. Robinat looks like a French name-
    "На успех кафе Робина работал и рекламный гений самого мсье Робина.. Открывая свое заведение, он усадил перед ним на рыжую кобылу… модного дирижера Давингофа — в одном нижнем белье"

    and

    "An Adventure Story" by Clyde Talley Earnest, Sr., Secretary-Treasurer of the American Red Cross Medical Mission to Roumania July 1917 to January 1918:
    Consul Ray had dinner with me tonight in my room, also a Mr. Twose, an American artist who came over with an Ambulance Corp and was laid up at Odessa with Typhoid Fever and was taken care of by the Y.M.C.A. I am trying to get him to join the Red Cross at Jassy for relief work, and he is very much interested. We also had with us a very young Russian Lieutenant, who seemed very bashful -- something out of the ordinary among Russians. After dinner Consul Ray took the whole party for a short walk to the Robinat Café, a French Café, where we had tea and chocolate. While there another Russian officer told the young officer with us that at another café across the street [This would be the Café Fanconi, mentioned in the below quote and said to be located on the diagonal from Robinat's by Russian Wiki. Fanconi was founded by a Swiss man, Yasha Fanconi, and specialized in chocolate and bribery of the police. It's said that "intellectuals ran to Robin intelligently drank a bottle of vodka and then ran across the street to the Fanconi because there were tables in the open air, which was much more pleasant."] soldiers were going through and searching officers for revolvers and taking them. Our friend was very much concerned and excited over it, as he had two small automatics with him. However, we escorted him home and nothing happened.

    The Café Robinat was across the street from the Café Fanconi -
    "The Russian Empire of to-day and yesterday" by Nervin O. Winter, 1913:
    There is a regular program of life at Odessa. Daribas Street is the rendezvous of all the world that goes on foot during the day. Three or four blocks form the centre of life. During the morning hour the ladies stroll there for an airing and incidentally do a little shopping.  Matrons with their marriageable daughters, and daughters without their mammas, stroll back and forth, while poor students, in their tattered uniforms, watch with envious eyes this phase of life in which they have no part. This is a sort of diminutive merry-go-round, with two streams of people passing each other in different directions. But if military uniform meets uniform — watch the change. The right arm touches the vizored cap, and is held stiffly until they have passed. At times this action is repeated every few yards. In the afternoon many go to Robinat's or Fanconi's for afternoon tea, and some of the excellent pastries for which Odessa is noted.

    The Fanconi was founded by a Swiss gentleman named Yasha Fanconi and was famous for its chocolate, ambiance, a bribery of the police.  The Cafés Robinat and Fanconi seemed to have had a rather symbiotic relationship rather than a competitive one. The clientele of the Robinat were mainly intellectuals, while the Fanconi was geared more towards the socialites. However, the Fanconi, in part, catered to some of the Robinat's customers who would play chess or billiards at the Robinat and then go sit at the more comforable and pleasant outdoor tables of the Fanconi. No chess was played at the Fanconi (pictured below).

  • 11 months ago

    batgirl

    "...related by another Odessa chess player, Iglitsky."

    That would be Alexander Mikhailovich Iglitsky (1901-1964)

  • 11 months ago

    Chessforeva_Dev

  • 13 months ago

    Spektrowski

    Robinat's (the correct spelling, the owner's name was P.F. Robinat) restaurant was located at Ekaterininskaya street in Odessa. Internet research didn't give much besides Tkachenko's and Iglitsky's articles, which didn't say much except that Robinat's restaurant chess room was Odessa's pre-Revolution chess life center where the strongest players gathered regularly.

  • 13 months ago

    batgirl

    Thanks for the Alekhine anecdote. It seems almost contrived. But, who knows?

    I am wondering if you know anything about Robin's Cafe (кафе Робина) on  ул. Ланжероновская, д. 24, Одесса. 

    I tried to research it but with very little luck.  One site game me this: доме №24 размещалось кафе Робина. В недавние дни в этом доме размещался ресторан «Украина», а в наши дни контора банка. В этом же доме находился театр миниатюр, надпись которого хорошо видна на почтовой открытке начала ХХ века. Вывеска театра расположена над повозкой.

    Another site show this same building but with this:
    Апарт-отель Drk
    ул. Ланжероновская, д. 24, Одесса

    Yet another site gives the location as at the corner of
    Ул.Ланжероновская and ул.Екатерининская  which makes sense.

    The only information as to chess is in the caption noted above.

    Are there any Russian or Ukrainian sites you know of that talk about this chess cafe?

    Keep in mind I'm only monolingual.

  • 13 months ago

    g-levenfish

    WOW! All very interesting!!Keep these great stories coming,Thanks!

  • 13 months ago

    DonChipriani

    Thank you for sharing this great story. Cheers!

  • 13 months ago

    Spektrowski

    A small anecdote involving Alekhine and Vilner, related by another Odessa chess player, Iglitsky.

    In 1918, a blond, broad-shouldered man in his twenties entered the Robin chess cafe and loudly asked if anyone is up for a chess game. This bravery of an unknown visitor who dared to challenge everyone rather than politely watch the authorities play, should have been punished. Yakov Vilner, the second-strong Odessa's player, sat down against him.

    The table was immediately surrounded by the club's patrons, ready to laugh at the brave visitor and then tell him off for his insolence.

    But something unthinkable happened. Vilner played the first game off-handedly and lost quickly. Eager to take revenge, he quickly set the pieces up for a second game. He played much more carefully, but still couldn't avoid defeat. Vilner played the third game very seriously. It took 2 hours or so, which was unusual for the chess club. But Vilner defended the very chess honour of Odessa. Vilner managed to reach the endgame, but was utterly defeated there.

    Vilner's third defeat was met with deathly silence. Wiping the sweat off his brow, Vilner asked, "Could you please tell us your name?"

    His partner didn't have time to answer: the door opened, and Boris Verlinsky, the Odessa champion, entered the room. Seeing something unusual happening, he squeezed his way to the board and, recognizing Vilner's conqueror, loudly exclaimed, "Alekhine!"

    That was the first time I heard applause in the room. The chess player laughed, but not at Vilner, but rather at themselves.

    "Would you like to play on?" Alekhine asked Vilner with a smile. Vilner, half-jokingly, asked for Knight odds. Alekhine, of course, refused the odds and immediately offered everyone to solve one position that he remembered when asked for the odds.

    "Here are the conditions", Alekhine said. "White play without both Rooks. For this, they take the f7 pawn off the board and get the right to do 8 moves in a row, but only on their own half. You should position the pieces in such a way that after any Black's move White gave them a mate in four or earlier."

    Alekhine offered another funny problem to us later: White begin the game with 1. f3, 2. Kf2, 3. Kg3 and 4. Kh4. Black should reply, but their moves should not hinder the White King's fantastic journey. They should checkmate the White King at move 4.

  • 13 months ago

    Spektrowski

    Sadly, Yakov Vilner died young at 32, succumbing to heart disease and asthma.

  • 13 months ago

    Jausch46

    Thank You for this marvelous story and thorough investigation. We should keep the name of Yakov Vilner who was brave enough to protest and who through personal intervention saved Alekhine for the chess world. 

  • 13 months ago

    batgirl

    Such a deliciously tangled tale.  Thanks so much.

  • 13 months ago

    Bagramian

    great research by Tkatchenko! thanks a lot for this translation, Spectrowski! wonder if the Romanians haven't got more about this somewhere nobody has been looking for in the last 65 years.

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